As I wrote earlier, a major section of Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand is an exposition on what he calls “bottom-up cooking.” It’s an expression that he derives from the Italian “fondo di cottoura (literally ‘the bottom of the cooking’).” The technique is literal: Pan-roasting meats and vegetables in order to obtain caramelized scrapings that dislodge from the bottom of the meat into the pan and provide the base for sauces. The method of extracting flavor results in what he calls sugo:
Sugo has the same root as succulent and it is synonymous with succo, the word for freshly squeezed fruit or vegetable juice. The term sugo applies equally to the simple pan drippings of roasted meat, braised fish, or vegetables, and to the more complex liquid amalgam that results from the long, moist cooking of meat or fowl with or without aromatic components.
Mr. Bertolli provides detailed recipes for complex meat broths and ragus, but one of the easiest and most basic applications of “bottom-up cooking” is for pan-roasted chicken.
I’m accustomed to the method of pan-roasting by first browning chicken, fish, or pork in olive oil in a hot pan and then moving the meat into the oven in order to cook through to the center. Direct contact with the hot pan allows the skin and surface of the meat to achieve a rich, caramelized crust, but by finishing the cooking in the oven, the outside will not burn before it is done. It’s a method I probably learned while I once worked as a busboy and watched what went on at the grill. Fillets of salmon, swordfish steaks, and thick pork chops might have started on the grill or range, but once they were browned, the cooks were constantly shuttling the meat in and out of the oven until it was cooked.
Mr. Bertolli’s method of pan-roasting departs from this strategy. First, he suggests cooking with little to no fat at all in order to encourage the production of more brown bits in the bottom of the pan. Second, the entire cooking process takes place on top of the stove, and the meat never makes it into the oven. It’s a method that works amazingly well with chicken, but one he also recommends for pork, beef, and oily fish. I tried it with fillets of salmon, cooked without any oil, and the fish turned out fantastic, thought the apartment did end up a little smoky.
To make his recipe for pan-roasted chicken, season bone-in chicken pieces with salt, pepper, and fresh rosemary, and place them skin side down directly in a dry, hot pan. As the pieces are laid down, the chicken makes a loud “zmmmph” sounds as the skin makes contact with the pan. It sticks, but if you let it sizzle for a few minutes, you can gently pull it away from the pan. To keep the meat from sticking, one needs to occasionally return to the pan and keep pulling away the skin so it does not stick completely. As pieces brown, turn them in order to brown each side.
The chicken must cook for about an hour before it is done, and the medium heat must be modulated up and down so there is a constant sizzle without burning. As the chicken pieces brown, adjust them so that they can cook on each side, leaning them up against other pieces if they threaten to tumble over.
Mr. Bertolli recommends “parking” the breast pieces on top of the dark meat if they have cooked on one side before the others: “Parking the breast pieces stops the cooking on the second side of and assures that they will be as most as the leg and thigh pieces.”
All together, the process takes approximately 40 minutes on the skin side and 25 minutes on the second side. As you can see from the picture above, the method results in an incredibly crisp skin and dark, golden brown color. The meat is also succulent and intense with flavor.
When the chicken is cooked, remove it from the pan, and the scrapings left behind form the basis for the sugo. According to Mr. Bertolli, add some water, and take a wooden spoon and deglaze the pan, and let reduce until the liquid thickens into a sauce.
This basic sugo is essential, but in a second round attempt at pan-roasted chicken, I embellished upon Mr. Bertolli’s recipe. Once I removed the chicken, I lightly sautéed some chopped garlic and shallots in the pan, then added an assortment of sliced wild mushrooms, and sautéed them until soft and lightly browned. Then I added the water, and let the sugo reduce until thick. The posibilities are endless.